Saturday 26th November 2016
It’s just ticked over to 12:30 AM. I’ve called it. Said I’ve finished the story. I’m done.
But I’m not.
This month I decided to attempt NaNoWriMo. That stands for National Novel Writing Month, and began as an idea between a group of friends in 1999. The challenge they set was to write a 50,000 word story in the month of July. That’s roughly a 100 page novel. Think books like Fight Club, The Hitchhikers Guide, Of Mice and Men, Slaughterhouse-Five, Brave New World. It’s a short novel, but not a short story. The challenge eventually got moved from July to November, and has grown from the initial 21 participants to a lot more. A fuck load more. In 2015, there were 351,489 people who attempted nano, with 12% (40,423) of them finishing. Since it began, 250 novels that began as nano projects have been traditionally published, after a lot of re-writing at a guess. For someone like me who is into writing and books, I had to try it out.
50,000 words in a month is almost 1700 words each day (1667 technically). Everyone writes at a different pace, with the average typing speed (going by google) to be around 40 words per minute. If you’re typing at that speed, you should be able to hit the word count pretty easily typing for just one hour every day, for 30 days. Consistency is the key, because if you miss a day, you’re suddenly looking at writing 3,334 words the next day. This figure becomes overwhelming after a few missed days for a lot of participants, and fair enough when you’re trying to juggle life and all of it’s misadventures such as children, work, appeasing a partner and having a social life. To then find time to write sounds daunting and exhausting. But it’s possible, if you make time instead of try to find time to write.
I’m fortunate to be in a position at the moment where practically none of the above effect me, so I have whole days at my disposal. It’s a frugal existence, it won’t last, but that’s where I was at in November. It didn’t seem fair to me to set my goal the same as people juggling so many responsibilities, so my goal wasn’t to write 50,000 words but to get to the end of a story. I’ve written words before, I’ve started many stories and written outlines and stuff, but I’ve never sat down and written one from start to finish.
This month, I thought I would try. And I did, sort of.
To set the scene, I heard of nano back in 2012 or 2013. But I never did it. I asked people if they wanted to do it with me and while people liked the idea, no one accepted my offer. When this year started and I was doing random monthly challenges, like this, this, and this, I wrote NaNoWriMo down for something to do in November. But I forgot all about that list and stopped doing challenges mid year. I only remembered nano about a week before it started, when I felt myself fall into a slightly depressive post holiday rut and needed a new project.
Many people spend the entire month of October writing outlines and doing character profiles, gearing up for the month ahead. I didn’t have that long to prepare. I needed an idea, preferably something not too big, and then go from there. I trawled through past idea’s I’d written down and had some concepts, but nothing that really stood out.
At some point in that week, whilst I was driving my car, I thought about wizard night school. Every magical school story is about kids or young adults. Coming of age. All that shit. Night school would mean that someone has reached a certain point in their life and decided you know what? Fuck it. I’m going to drop this job and learn how to be a wizard. That was the initial idea.
But it didn’t seem like enough. I was thinking over a couple of days about what kind of world this could be set in, where magic is a common thing but not everyone knows how to do it. I didn’t like it that much though.
I found this old idea I’d written down about a guy who dies and his kids finish his life work. As someone who frequently starts something and then abandons the project, it’s a bit close to home. Except I don’t have any kids to ever go through all the hundreds of projects I’ve started. But I wondered how they would see their father, if he died before they ever really got to meet him. Would they read some of his ideas and then finish the stories? If he put music or movies on the internet, would it suddenly have a resurgence years after he died? Would they have one impression of him when they are younger, listening to stories their mother told them, and that impression distorts as they learn about him online, say hacking into his Facebook profile or found his web history? It was an ok idea, but it felt too… self absorbed. It was me writing about what could potentially happen to me, with a very grandiose flavour to it. No one I know has abandoned projects. Therefore, most people wouldn’t relate to the main character.
I couldn’t get it out of my head though, so I started to think about characters. Maybe a daughter who maybe becomes a hacker and can then get into a futuristic NSA database, while the son goes the mystical route and maybe tries to summon the man through a ouija board or has some kind of mental illness which makes him feel more in tune with the dead. The siblings have this continuing conflict about who their father really was, and form two totally different opinions on him. Naturally both would be right and wrong to some degree.
On the 26th of October, I wrote these 3 ideas down, and then went back to whatever the fuck it is I do. Honestly, I don’t even know myself sometimes.
On the 29th, I went to the pub and got rather drunk. I had a couple of stray thoughts come to me during the course of the day, and one of them was to combine the dead guy with the magic school. Death magic school. I jotted it down in my phone.
The next day, during the usual combat with the hangover, I wrote a quick 2000 words on the idea of someone waking up with no memory in limbo, and finding out he has to go to school. It wasn’t an outline, it was more a process of quickly jotting down some rough tangents it could go in, some basic rules, and seeing if it tied in with the other three thoughts.
The last day of October, I went to the shops to buy coffee and other supplies, then napped and lay in bed all day before going to work a nightshift. I was well prepared though, as I had Scrivener on my phone. I’d say 5 minutes after midnight, I started writing, and snuck in a sentence or a paragraph whenever I got a chance throughout the shift. Was it good? Of course not! I’m at work trying to write a story in small pockets of time. But it was a start nonetheless. I didn’t get nearly enough sleep, as I wrote before bed that morning, but I got some words down before I went in and did another shift the second night. I wrote when I got home, got a few hours sleep, cooked up a huge tub of pasta and stayed up late writing, getting just over 9000 words down by the end of the second day. I hadn’t had much sleep, but I’d well and truly started the story.
Day 3 saw me with a day off, rested, and a goal. I loaded up on coffee, and just wrote. I didn’t have to leave the house as I’d cooked the day before, so by the end of day 3, I was at 20,000 words. I also found the overachievers forum on the nano website, and joined up to this chart that ranked everyone who had joined it by word count.
As the word count increased, I started celebrating by drinking gin, writing the Hemming way. Day 4 saw me a feeling a bit lethargic for some unknown reason. I got 6000 words down, but got called in for a nightshift. Day 5, after some sleep, I put my head down and wrote. It was a bit of a struggle, but I got my word count up to 36,000 words, kind of killing a character during a fit of tiredness at the end. Suddenly the 50,000 goal line was in sight though!
Day 6 I hit the 50,000 word goal at 11:30 PM. I’d done it, I’d “won” NaNoWriMo in 6 days.
It felt good. But I hadn’t really achieved anything. My story, far from being well developed, was still in it’s infancy. I started to run into problems with the “rules” of the world I had created, and was trying to solve them on the fly without taking the time to think things through. I had some characters, they were doing things, but they were repeating themselves during dialogue so that I could learn who they were, what their motivations were, and how the world worked. The story felt sluggish, but wasn’t I supposed to feel good that I had won this thing?
As is usual when I do these challenges, I document a lot during the first week, then slack off. Same again with this. Week 2 of nano was tough. I tried to keep the momentum up and write 5000 words per day, but it didn’t happen. I had whole days where I didn’t write a single word. I decided to start doing some research, which is a rabbit hole best avoided when trying to do a first draft in a month. I got some rules firmer in my mind, I got some new names for characters and objects, but I definitely hit a plateau. I also had to do some work to pay rent and that, giving me less time to write, but in general it was a slog even when I had the time to write. The last 2 days of the week, I did the “work” routine. I would set an alarm early, smash a coffee and a cigarette, and then write. I repeated it on the first day of the third week (day 15), and crossed the 100K line. I was a double nano winner.
You would think I’d have taken a screen shot, but for some reason I didn’t. I think I passed the 100 line and just kept going, too wrapped up trying to get the story down on the page. Got a few in progress ones though.
The next week was another slow week. While I was aiming for 5000 word each day, I was lucky to get 2000, and had a few days where I wrote nothing at all (out with friends and working didn’t help). But the story was moving forwards. It was getting to the point where I could start to see where it was heading. I definitely slowed down. I hesitated and began to be worried about the story. I didn’t want to type the “wrong” thing. The beginning was different, I didn’t care what happened. If it all fell apart and was full of terrible jokes, so what.
By week 3, I was being precious. I knew who these characters were, and couldn’t make such rash decisions about what they might do in a situation. It had to fit in with who they were. Day 21 saw me sitting at 114,000. It also saw me pull out an A3 bit of paper, and start writing the story arc on it so I had a bit of a plan. The story arc showed me that far from being over, this small, simple idea I had could tie in with something I’d imagined years earlier. I’d had a go at writing it once, and after getting to 80,000 words over a few months, I’d abandoned the project. It felt wrong. Now though, I could see how things might fit together.
I pulled my head out of my arse and got to 122,000 on day 22. I did 9,000 on day 23 and I pushed through and did another 10,000 words on day 24, getting to 142,808 words. I also hit the end of a story arc, and without thinking about it to much, began writing the start of the next part before bed.
The next day, I got up early, ready to repeat what’s been working best. Coffee, smoke, go. I looked back at the story arc I’d drawn up, and where i’d left off from the night before. While kind of moving the story forward, I was also setting up new sub plots. Kind of major sub plots. The kind of major sub plots that would be considered complete plots for a new book, if the story ended a couple of chapters back. I thought about it, made another coffee and realised I’d gone through the whole jar in 25 days, and decided this is where book 1 ends. I deleted some of what I’d written, validated it, and won nano.
So here I am. It’s now in the early hours of tomorrow. I’ve written a story that is the worst kind of story, one that has no ending (that’s been written). Sure I can keep bashing away at it, which I intend to do, but after writing up the story arc I’m realising that I’ve written book 1 of more. I don’t mean like a trilogy. A trilogy is a series of books, each with their own story arc. Lord of the rings isn’t a trilogy. It’s one book, split into 3 (or 6) parts. I don’t know how many books or parts this will have. It’s conceivable that it will have 3. But at the moment it sits in that grey area where the fellowship of the rings finished. There’s been a set up, some drama, and it’s ended. No resolution.
Perhaps I called it too early. The story isn’t finished, after all. But I also think it’s insane to try and write at least what I’ve already written, again, in 5 days. I’m not saying it’s not possible, but I don’t think it’s a good idea to write 50,000 words each day, for 5 days.
Update 1st December, 2016
So I thought I’d wait until nano is actually over before posting this. Here’s where I’m at now that it’s finished and I can no longer update my word count.
Despite my best intentions to continue writing with the same momentum, it definitely slowed down when I decided I had finished part 1. In the 5 days since then, I’ve written under 10,000 words, total. Every major jump on the chart above, is roughly a 10,000 word day. 5 days, I could have potentially hit the 200,000 word mark, but I hit a problem with my plot, and needed to nut out how to solve it before I continued writing. Or so I told myself anyway. It’s a big project though, and whilst getting a solid start down in one month is great, for me the thing to remember is consistency. It might take me 3 months to write the rest. It might be longer. As long as I continue to sit down for at least an hour or so each day, I will eventually get to the end.
One thing that really helped me was the support of the nano forums/reddit and the challenge of the nanoer’s beyond 50K graph. As I said at the start, the challenge for me wasn’t about the word count, but about writing the story. The two are related up to the point where you are writing drivel for the sake of getting words on a page. I can give myself permission to write badly and fail, but not to write words for the sake of writing words. I still have to edit this thing one day.
I can’t deny it though, having this graph and seeing others progress actually pushed me to write more. I would have days where I’d hit my quota of 5,000 words and stop, even when I had more things to write. I’d update my word count and see that someone might be sitting only 1000 words ahead of me. I’d opt to write for a little longer, and suddenly I’d be sitting at 8,000 words for the day and have finished a small chapter arc.
Here’s where the graph is standing as I’m writing this. I can’t update my word count, as I’m in Australia and nano is finished. Other parts of the world, it’s still got a few more hours. Out of 234 people, I ranked in at 31, but I might get bumped off there yet. To be honest once I’d finished nano, I stopped caring about where I was at on the graph and instead wanted to see others succeed in hitting the 50K. I found it fascinating to watch these people’s word counts go up, with that Viva La Revolution character setting such a strong pace at the start (50,000 words on day 1!) and then just stopping on day 20, 6 words short of 300,000. Maybe they died or something.
I know I’ve gone all graphical and boring by the end of this post, but fuck you, for a month this was my world, the names above, my motivation to keep pushing myself.
Would I recommend it? Definitely. If anyone has even the slightest idea that they would one day like to write a book, sign up in November 2017 and do it while there’s thousands of other people doing it as well. Without sounding like a can-do fuckwit, what day are you waiting for to give yourself permission to write? Inspiration is bullshit, it’s something that put me off doing nano for years. Bad ideas can turn into gold, and vice versa.
While I’m an outlier with no life, there’s plenty of other people who work full time, have young children or are pregnant, who had crazy life changing events happen during the month, but still gave the 50K a crack anyway. They either hit the 50K line and won or wrote more words than they possibly ever have in their life. Or didn’t. But you only really learn by allowing yourself to fail.
In some ways I failed, by not getting to the end of the story. I hit the 50K mark three times in a month but it’s just words and numbers. When I decided I’d “done enough” and shared that thought with friends, family and Facebook, I slacked off completely as I got positive feedback and validation for what I’d done. But the thing isn’t fucking finished. So next time, I’m going to shut up till it’s properly done, maybe even until I’ve finished the re-write as people start wanting to read something that is no where near ready. I also learnt from the experience the process that is best for me to write, which is to treat writing how I would approach work.
Now to continue to do that until I get to the fucking end of this thing.